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No Cannes do this year for British directors

For the first time in years no UK movie is up for the Palme d'Or. Kaleem Aftab asks how our stock of arthouse favourites ran dry

There will be no British winner of the biggest prize in cinema outside of the Oscars this year. Cannes Artistic Director Thierry Frémaux has failed to include any British films in the competition line-up for the coveted Palme d'Or. British interest in the “official selection” of Cannes – made up of the Competition Films, the Un Certain Regard sidebar, and special screenings – is limited to an out-of-competition slot for Stephen Frears's Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight, about the boxer's refusal to go to Vietnam. British director Lynne Ramsay is a member of the jury.

It's not unusual for British cinema to have limited interest at Cannes. The last time no British film was competing for the Palme d'Or was in 2008, although that was tempered by the inclusion of both Steve McQueen's Hunger and Thomas Clay's Soi Cowboy in the Un Certain Regard section, by film-makers who it was hoped would be vying for the Palme D'Or by now.

Thomas Clay has failed to make a film since Soi Cowboy. He joins a list of British film-makers who have had some success at the festival, but who have received little or no British funding after their Cannes works failed to receive critical or commercial success. The list includes Emily Young, whose Kiss of Life was selected in 2003 and Shona Auerbach, director of the 2004 romantic drama Dear Frankie.

Steve McQueen, who won the Camera d'Or prize for best first-time director with Hunger was the likely candidate to be in competition this time around. His latest, Twelve Years a Slave, is based on the autobiography of Solomon Northup and stars Chiwetel Ejiofor, Brad Pitt, Michael Fassbender and Benedict Cumberbatch. The first sign that Twelve Years a Slave wasn't going to the Croisette was the rumour last month that the film, shot in early 2012, wasn't going to be ready in time. It's a line that has often been used as code for a rejected film.

However, given that the release date is currently scheduled for early 2014 it's plausible that the Brad Pitt-produced picture is not ready. Expect to see it at the Venice Film Festival, a path taken with McQueen's controversial Shame. The response from the British Film Institute to the omission from the official list is that it's no biggie.

Ben Roberts, Director of the British Film Institute Film Fund, tells The Independent, “Given we have the benefit of some oversight of the runners and riders, and also timings of films which may or may not be ready, some that might wait for Venice or Toronto, we didn't expect the competition was going to be the home for much of this year's titles.”

He adds: “Why do we care whether Andrea Arnold or Steve McQueen premiere in Cannes or Venice? It's nonsense. Besides, so much of this is down to timing and release strategies. Mike Leigh is going into production this year – if his film isn't ready by Cannes next year and on track instead for Venice/Toronto, are we going to have this conversation in April or wait until August? Personally I won't judge a year a success or failure until September.”

The trouble with this argument is that comparing a Venice slot to a Cannes competition berth is like saying the Golden Globes has the prestige of the Oscars. In recent years Cannes' position as the top festival on the calendar has been compounded as Venice struggles against the more commercially minded Toronto Film Festival. And when Britain has success at Cannes, the bureaucrats working in British films are the first to shout In the parallel sections at Cannes, the Director's Fortnight and Critics' Week, there will be three British feature films. Clio Barnard's children's fable The Selfish Giant, Ruairi Robinson's sci-fi thriller Last Days on Mars and Paul Wright's drama For Those in Peril. Roberts stated: “Well done to Clio, Paul and Ruairi. It's gratifying to see three such distinctive and personal talents in the spotlight at the world's biggest film festival.”

The last British winner of the Palme d'Or was Ken Loach's The Wind that Shakes the Barley in 2006, a year in which Andrea Arnold was also in competition with Red Road. The then Chief Executive of the Film Council John Woodward stated: “It's incredibly important that two British films are in competition. Their appearance is symbolic of the health of a particular section of British film production.”

That's the rub. Britain has been failing to produce quality film-makers making high-end, prestige films. It's part of the industry that's on a life-support machine. The worry is not so much the failure this year of British film-makers to be in competition, but that the only working British film-makers to make regular appearances at Cannes are Ken Loach, Stephen Frears (president of the jury 2007), Mike Leigh, Terry Gilliam and, to a certain extent, Michael Winterbottom. A whole generation of film-makers has come and gone without establishing themselves on the festival circuit.

The Festival president Gilles Jacob wrote an essay on the state of British film in 2010, in which he started off by rebuking François Truffaut's claim that “there is no such thing as British Cinema”. Yet it's clear he sees British film-making as having strength when showing “an empathy with the working class.” The British directors Jacob cites as on the Cannes map are Arnold, Ramsay, McQueen, Peter Mullan, Shane Meadows, Young and Clay, yet the actions of the festival programmers have spoken louder than words, as only Ramsay has had a film at Cannes since the essay was written. Roberts admits: “Of course we should be aiming for at least one film in competition. But quite rightly you can't strategise Cannes competition, it's not the be all and end all.”

Roberts adds: “There are other film-makers who are about to start their 'Cannes journey'. Are they competition ready? Probably not.” In addition to the three in this year's Cannes sidebars, he cites Ben Wheatley, Paddy Considine, Debbie Tucker Green and Esther May Campbell as names to watch.

Yet recent history suggests that, when it comes to new British talent at Cannes, there are no guarantees that the directors will still be being supported by the industry bigwigs a decade on, as it seems Britain has forgotten how to producer auteurs.

Cannes Film Festival, 15 to 26 May